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How to Run a Public Meeting: Advice to Congressional Democrats

Boy oh boy, we’ve come a long way since the inauguration. Angry crowds protesting in public venues. Allegations that congressional town hall audiences are peanut galleries filled with a cast of characters that looks like it was conjured up by conniving State Attorney General Hedly Lamarr to terrorize the citizens of Rock Ridge in Blazing Saddles. White House requests to inventory “fishy” e-mails from the public. Alerts from the office of former ballet dancer and wannabe pugilist, Rahm Emanual, that proponents “punch back twice as hard.” Demands by the POTUS that citizens stop talking and “get out of the way.”

Round up the usual suspects

Round up the usual suspects

Clearly, this is not the citizen engagement that was promised. Instead, it’s fairly noxious stuff and seems designed to cause irreparable harm to civil discourse, squelch public participation, and even foment violence. I’m looking for a precedent in recent U.S. presidential history, but can’t find it.

How did we get to this point? Before anyone makes the unsubstantiated assertion that the audiences coming out to these events are “rent-a-mobs” organized by special interest groups who are interested in squelching serious debate about health care, let’s make one thing clear. If you don’t have basic ground rules in place and create an environment where everyone feels comfortable, it doesn’t matter. The meeting will get unruly without any outside efforts or ill intentions.

How do I know? As a two-term councilman, I’ve seen the dynamic in action and even stirred the pot a little myself. Eventually, the mayor and council needed to revise the ground rules, and I needed a little attitude adjustment. It made an extraordinary difference to the tenor of the meetings.

So how do you combat meetings turning ugly? Here are a few suggestions:

(1) Don’t come to a public meeting with your mind already made up. There’s nothing that makes citizens angrier than going through the motions of public meetings when it is clear that the official will not entertain any other possibilities. The race to pass health care bill before adequate public input was received solidified in many citizens’ minds that the town halls were mere exhibitions.
(2) As a public official, choose your words carefully. Definitely no name-calling. Don’t make allegations about peoples motivations (anyway it’s is a logical fallacy). Don’t make messianic claims about your own unique talents and ability to solve all the problems. Also, make it clear that you value citizen input. Demonstrate good listening skills.
(3) Have an organization with no stated opinion on the issue organize the meeting. Often it will be a local civic organization. Don’t allow partisans to organize and control the meeting.
(4) Make sure that the venue is large enough to accommodate the expected audience size. Err on the size of caution. Better for the facility to be too large than too small.
(5) Distribute a copy of the ground rules, including expectations of citizen and public official behavior. You might use Robert’s Rules of Order. You might supplement Robert’s Rules with something else more specific.
(6) Have a sign in sheet where citizens can register their intention to speak, and have a neutral party chair the meeting and select the citizens from that list.
(7) Assign a time limit of, say, 3-5 minutes for each citizen on the list to speak. If they have more to say, ask them to provide their remarks in writing and make it part of the public record.
(8) Summarize the remarks of citizens at the end to make clear that you understood them, and demonstrate that you will give them serious research and thought.

Hope you realize the mess you've made

Hope you realize the mess you've made

If these suggestions don’t work, it’s time to go into a new line of business.

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